July 2017: I poured myself a few fingers of heavy brown stuff without ice or a bullshit whiskey stone at my wife’s and my one-bedroom, money-eating apartment in the Haight-Ashbury of San Francisco. For my guest, Alex Honnold, a notorious teetotaler, I poured a glass of water. Two months earlier, I’d lamented in this very column that I had strayed so far from the climbing scene that high-profile climbers had stopped texting me. Now, I was having drinks with the greatest free soloist in the world, Alex “Big Nutz” Honnold. My pad is decorated smartly, clearly the product of a Pinterest board, a boy with few pieces of art, and a spouse with the eye and motivation to make it comfortable. Alex sat across from me on a new camel-colored leather couch. I liked it. It was one of the first things my wife and I had bought together after getting married.
“Hey, Tower, I read your last article,” Alex had texted me a week prior. “It was really good up until the end, and then it basically made zero sense and I totally didn’t get it. Also, I’m going to be in SF.”
After a day passed, I received another text: “You live in SF right? Can I crash on your couch?”
Earlier that evening, I’d met up with Honnold and pro climber Sam Elias at a book signing at Planet Granite climbing gym in the Presidio. I’d first met Sam in Rifle 12 years earlier and we’d kept in touch, hanging out any time we were both in the same city. Alex and I had crossed paths over the years both at various climbing venues throughout the country as well as professionally back when climbing journalism was my full-time job. Sam and I spoke about his upcoming meniscus surgery, his recovery, being away from climbing, and how scary the knife still feels for something so commonplace. We laughed at how dumb it felt to be frightened by going under anesthesia. I warned him not to use my last surgeon, who my wife had talked into drawing a giant penis on my arm in the surgical pen while I was out.
With Alex, we talked about the media circus around his June 27 free solo of El Capitan. We also talked about his current girlfriend, whom he’d met at a book signing in Seattle.
“Whose book signing?” I asked.
“I mean … mine. Alone on the Wall,” Alex said with a smile. Who else’s would it have been: Malcolm Gladwell? Chuck Klosterman? Atul Gawande? What was I thinking?
Eventually, later that night, we all went our separate ways. As we said our goodbyes in front of the restaurant, Alex called an Uber for us. I mentioned that the Pool option, in which you share the car with other riders, is often cheaper. “No matter,” Alex insisted, “It’s reimbursable.” I thought it was funny that Sam was leaving for a hotel while Alex was adamant about finding a couch to sleep on. Perhaps the cramped sleeping quarters on a couch mirrored the van setup he’s used to. For all the fame he’s found, the man still has to find his own bed to sleep in. It’s not all bright lights, big city. No limos or red carpets or handlers or fixers.
Back at my pad, on the very couch he’d be sleeping on, Alex sipped his water while I nursed my whiskey. We opened up about buying houses and city life. Where we wanted to settle down and if having kids was on the table. He talked openly about the reasonable lifespan of a career as a professional athlete and how he might, at age 32, make sure he’s set up in the future, about retirement plans and IRAs and 401(k)s.
I learned more about Alex that night than I’d ever understood from any article I’ve read or written about him. I’d read about his seemingly simple and unemotional views on soloing and the risk of death incurred each time he stepped off the ground. Apparently, there was even a book about it! But I saw a different side as we chatted about his father, who had died suddenly of a heart attack in 2004. Whether or not it might be better to lose someone you loved unexpectedly, in the snap of your fingers, or slowly, watching helplessly while they’re consumed by cancer, ALS, Alzheimer’s, or some other terrible disease.
They say don’t meet your heroes because they’ll just disappoint you, but I say fuck that. I think putting a little human in our heroes is something we all could use. It’s nice to know that no one on planet earth has all of their shit together. Your heroes are probably good at something very specific, but the rest of their life is full of the same mundane woes, worries, chores, toil, and hassles that plague us all. And, like the rest of us, they have their preferences and predilections, their failings and foibles: They either like kale or they don’t. They’ve either seen The Wire or they haven’t. They either think that East of Eden is the greatest work of fiction ever written or they don’t. They either drink whiskey or water. In the climbing realm, this means they are no more enlightened nor understand more about life than you do just because they happen to be insanely good at our sport. Guess what? Heroes are not gods; they don’t have special access to secret knowledge we peons will eternally grasp for. They are human beings. They know no more about how to deal with living, loving, or dying than the next guy.
So what then? No more heroes? Nah. Be inspired by people. I can push my training to another level watching Instagram videos of Sam thrashing himself on the system board. I can tap into an extra bit of boldness on runout sport routes when I channel some Honnold mental toughness. I can find inspiration to climb better, more thoughtfully, more efficiently, or with more guts through the videos of and feats realized by any number of incredible climbers around the world. Then, on Monday, when I’m facing a pile of copywriting work and a mountain of emails, I can remember Sam and Alex are working just as hard on their careers as I am. Spotlight or no, I can’t do what they do, but they can’t do what I do either. What you do. What we all do.
Two months later, I attended The North Face Speaker Series at the Castro Theater in SF to see another close friend, Emily Harrington, speak with Alex. We all had dinner before the event and drinks after. We ribbed each other about how bad we are at staying in touch despite only living a few hours apart. Their presentations, the typical talk and climbing-video stuff, were great.
During the presentation, someone said, “Alex, please be real careful doing what you’re doing. I mean, we’re all big fans and we want you to be around for a long, long time.” It was of course the same well-meaning but trite statement he’d heard a million times already. He responded kindly, sincerely: “Look, I appreciate that, I really do. But truly … I mean … no one in this room wants me to be around longer than me.”
The joke stuck, but you could hear in his voice the sincerity of the statement and his pause, as he considered the future before him. In that moment, Alex, the hero, the New York Times best seller, the man who’d free soloed El Capitan, the man whose climbing and celebrity seem to have him floating above the clouds, brought himself right back down to the same planet that you, me, and all the other regular-ass climbers live on day-in and day-out. A little worry, a little warmth, a little insight that, for all his accomplishments, the man doesn’t know the future any better than anyone else, but that he did want more of it just like we all do.
“I mean I’m setting up, like, a 401(k) and stuff, so I’m planning on being around for a while,” he said. “At least, I hope.”